Elon Musk has changed the future of spaceflight by using an already flown-and-retrieved rocket for a second satellite-launching mission. This innovation, and the massive cost savings it entails, should enable his company, SpaceX, to capture most of the world’s launch market. Now, the South African-born entrepreneur is setting out to dominate the global telecommunications industry – and for this, he needs a spaceport in Canada.
The first stage of an orbital rocket is the size of a large jetliner. It constitutes the largest portion, by far, of the cost of any space launch.
This all changed last Thursday, when SpaceX used a previously flown first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket to launch a communications satellite into geostationary orbit, before landing the stage on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
Rocket reusability should result in a 60- to 90-per-cent cost reduction for SpaceX launches, which were already quite competitive. As a result, SpaceX will soon capture almost all of the market, including launches for commercial communications, earth-imaging and geopositioning satellites, as well as Western military and intelligence satellites.
Before last Thursday’s launch, SpaceX was valued at more than $12-billion (U.S.). With an existing manifest that could support one launch per week, the privately held company will likely double or triple in value.
Mr. Musk has grander plans, however. One plan involves deploying reusable rockets to capture the global telecommunications market, by placing a constellation of 4,425 satellites into “low earth polar orbit.”
The satellites would provide broadband Internet to the entire planet, with none of the slight time delays involved with current telecoms satellites located in much higher geostationary orbit. Fibre-optic networks and cellphone towers would be rendered obsolete.
This is not a distant prospect: SpaceX already has hundreds of engineers working on the project at a new campus near Seattle.
But to succeed with this audacious move, Mr. Musk needs a new spaceport. Putting 4,425 communications satellites in place will require approximately 300 to 400 launches, at a rate of up to one launch a day. SpaceX’s current location for launches to polar orbit – Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – is an active military facility that cannot accommodate this level of commercial activity.
Happily, there are several ideal sites available on the southeast coast of Nova Scotia. An ideal site for launches to polar orbit has both open ocean and tracking stations straight to the south or the north. Such stations exist straight south of Nova Scotia – in the Caribbean, South America and Antarctica.
Canada currently lacks a spaceport, despite being the third country to operate a satellite and the first to do so for civilian purposes. This lack of infrastructure is all the more striking because Canada – the world’s second-largest country, with the longest coastline – is uniquely dependent on satellites for communications, banking, navigation, weather and sea-ice forecasting, forest and crop monitoring, surveillance, search and rescue, and disaster relief.
Previous proposals for a Canadian spaceport have failed due to a shortage of funds and available modern rockets. The most recent plan, involving non-reusable Ukrainian-made Cyclone 4M rockets, could never compete with SpaceX on cost and will go nowhere for this reason.
A spaceport would be easy for the federal and Nova Scotia governments to support. SpaceX would need a modest amount of coastal property, a good highway for transporting its rockets from manufacturing and testing facilities in the United States, and a supportive regulatory regime. Obviously, it would not require financial subsidies.
Everything else is already in place. Falcon 9 rockets use kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellants and these are easily sourced in Canada, including from the Irving refinery in St. John, N.B. SpaceX would need educated workers and attractive places for them to live, and these are abundant in Nova Scotia.
As far as I know, SpaceX has not yet approached the Canadian and N.S. governments. However, Marc Garneau will see the potential. The federal Transport Minister is in charge of infrastructure development, including ports of all kinds.
Just as importantly, Mr. Garneau is a three-time astronaut and former head of the Canadian Space Agency. He will recognize that SpaceX is rapidly reshaping the global economy, and that Canada is perfectly positioned to help.
It’s time to give Mr. Musk a call – and prepare for liftoff.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia
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